Though electronic music has long been a staple commodity to overseas fans, its beat-heavy cadences and sometimes sans-guitar sound had yet to make inroads on U.S. charts—until 1996 with the arrival of the Chemical Brothers. The northern England duo, onetime club DJs and old pals of Oasis, sliced through the modern rock genre with “Setting Sun,” a heady track full of noise and thunder—and wicked guitar—released late in the year. Its surprising success made the Chemical Brothers partly responsible for an alternative press frenzy predicting “electrónica,” as they termed it, as the next grunge. Even Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon professed to worship them—he approached the Chemical Brothers, Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands, at the Brit Awards, the U.K. equivalent of the Grammys, and “was out of his mind,” Simons told Spin’s Eric Weisbard. “He was singing us his new song, and saying he wanted a remix. He said ‘Setting Sun’ was the best thing he’d heard in the 1990s. Me and Tom were at a loss for words. We started mumbling about ’Rio’ and ‘Ordinary World.’”
Not surprisingly, given their appreciation of Duran Duran, the Chemical Brothers describe themselves as “nice middle-class kids,” as Rowlands confessed in Spin. He grew up in Henley-on-Thames, just outside London, and atthe age of 17formed a band called Ariel, which had one 1990 release. Simons grew up in London; the two met in 1989 at Manchester University where both were history majors. “Ed had a very non-musical background, in the strict sense” Rowlands told Spin’s Weisbard, “but he had been to a lot of the clubs and raves that I had been to. We knew the same records.” Typical of Britons of their generation, they had been devotees of groups like the Smiths and the Specials in their formative years, but such musical tastes evolved into harder-edged sounds from the likes of Renegade Soundwave, among others. The pair began to DJ together at clubs in Manchester, an industrial city in northern England and home to a thriving music scene.
It was their discovery of the Public Enemy record It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back that arrested Rowlands and Simons and propelled them into a different aural direction. Their DJ work evolved into remixing samples and other found noise, with the addition of synthesizers and drum machines, and they officially formed as the Dust Brothers in 1994. They released the single “Songs to the Siren,” recorded in 1992 at Row-lands’s home, and two subsequent EPs before signing with Virgin Records U.K. When Virgin’s U.S. branch Astralwerks pointed out that there was already a Dust Brothers in the States—a producer-duo best known for their work with the Beastie Boys and Beck who were less than thrilled by the usurpers—they renamed themselves the Chemical Brothers.
“You know sometimes you listen to a riff on a record and it gives you an image of some sleazy guy playing guitar?,” Simons posited to Rolling Stone’s Lorraine Ali. “Well, that’s just how I want our music to work.” That sound came out with their 1995 U.S. debut on Astral-werks/Caroline Exit Planet Dust, a record laden with samples, electronic noise, synthesizer cuts, backward-spun tape loops, and guitars all fused together with manic drum-machine beats. With virtually no promotion nor radio presence, the record sold over 100,000 in the States—a respectable showing and around half its sales in England. Village Voice reviewer James Hanna-ham compared their musical genius to Beethoven, and praised the infusion of elements. “The Brothers… don’t seem to know how not to manipulate a sound that gets vacuumed into their sampler,” Hannaham wrote. The critic singled out the track “Life Is Sweet,” through which the Brothers, he noted, “demonstrate their mastery by taking a busy signal, making it sound like it came from a 50-foot telephone, and building an excellent pop song.”
During 1996, the Brothers worked on a new release and made an appearance at the Organic ‘96 fest in California with Orb, Orbital, and Underworld; they also did remixes for Oasis and Manic Street Preachers. Late in the year they released the single “Setting Sun,” which charted immediately and was thrown into the heavily-promoted MTV Buzz Bin. The song’s dizzying
Members are Tom Rowlands (born in Oxford, England; son of a film director); Ed Simons (born in London, England). Both Simons and Rowlands were history majors at Manchester University in the early 1990s.
Rowlands played keyboard for a dance band, while Simons worked as a DJ. Group formed in Manchester, 1994, as the Dust Brothers; released the single “Songs to the Siren” and two EPs in England; signed with Virgin Records, 1995; changed name to Chemical Brothers, 1995.
Addresses: Home —London, England. Record company —Astralwerks/Caroline 114 26th St., New York, NY 10001.
beats were pulled back and forth over the “creepy, disembodied vocals”—as Rolling Stone’s Al Weisel put it—of Oasis’s Noel Gallagher. “We wanted to get the strange, disorienting effect of psychedelia and fuse that with a heavy club sound, “Rowlands explained to Weisel.
Though the “Setting Sun” single sold 30,000 copies Stateside in just a few weeks, oddly it netted a cooler reception in the U.K., where it was deemed a bit too abrasive for radio; one well-known DJ even removed it mid-spin. As Simons told Billboard writer Julie Taraska, there were differences between English and American fans. “People hold us in a certain amount of affection in England,” he reflected, “while people who actually write about us treat us like a heavy metal band. Critics [in the U.K.] can’t be bothered, because our music cuts across boundaries. In America, critics seem more interested in the music, [and] we get some sort of critical appraisal. So it’s good that we have these two different things.”
That critical assessment turned to serious hype by early 1997. Music-industry watchers were predicting the imminent explosion of electronic music exemplified by the Chemical Brothers as well as two other overseas acts, Prodigy and Underworld, and it was a trend also mirrored in new releases from U2 and the Smashing Pumpkins. “With record sales stagnant and the alternative-rock wave of the last half-dozen years perceived to be ebbing, the U.S. music industry is desperate for a new movement to boost business,” wrote Steve Hoch-man in Rolling Stone. The Brothers’ response? “It’s annoying when people say, This is the future,‘” Rowlands told Ali in Rolling Stone, and asserted that dance and rock genres can pleasantly co-exist; the hype was unjustified. “People are just getting excited, obsessed with trying to see what’s next. They don’t want to be left behind.”
“Setting Sun” was included on the full-length release Dig Your Own Hole, which debuted in April and charted in the Top 20 soon afterward. A Rolling Stone review warned readers the first track “will fry you alive,” and the entirety of the record “burns the whole rock vs. techno argument into a fine, white ash.” That first track was “Block Rockin’ Beats,” which sampled rapper Schoolly D’s rousing “Back with another one of those block-rockin’ beats!” line from his 1989 song “Gucci Again.” Vocalist Beth Orton, an earlier collaborator with the Brothers, revisited for “Where Do I Begin?” New York’s Mercury Rev contributed to “The Private Psychedelic Reel,” a song reflecting the Chemical Brothers’ fanaticism for the more experimental late sixties forays of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. “Reel” takes its name from a Japanese bootleg recording of unreleased Beatles music, “tracks that they recorded specifically for themselves to take acid to,” they told Spin’s Weis-bard.
Aside from commercial success, the Brothers’ second LP landed them on numerous magazine covers and feature articles that delivered unswerving critical approval. “All but unique in electrónica, nearly every track on Dig Your Own Hole achieves a separate identity, wrote Spin’s Weisbard. “The album has an order and a flow.” In the New York Times, Neil Strauss called the Brothers one of the most credible co-optings of black music by a white act: “Instead of trying to rap, the Chemical Brothers take hip-hop beats and sampling techniques and add the studio experimentation of 60’s psychedelia and the sonic layering of England’s pre- techno acid-house music,” wrote Strauss. “It’s not pretty music we make; it’s quite rough and abrasive,” Simons remarked in an attempt to explain their sound to Entertainment Weekly. “In that way, it is kind of dance music for rock fans. If you buy one of our records, it doesn’t mean you have to go and burn all your Offspring CDs.”
Despite their enthronement as late-nineties new rock gods, Simons and Rowlands remain mellow and even a bit geeky. As Spin’s Weisbard noted, they’ve even evoked comparisons with MTV animated cretins Bea-vis and Butthead. “Maybe it’s ’cause we’re a bit socially inadequate. We used to go out all the time and just sitin the bar, wearing normal clothes,” Simons told Weis-bard, to which Rowlands added, “People thought we were drug dealers.” Nevertheless, the year 1997 would bring them world tour dates and summer festival gigs in Europe, and certainly, skyrocketing record sales. The New York Times’s Strauss, reviewing a live Chemical Brothers performance for the paper in the spring of 1997, wrote that on that night one certain bellwether of the impact electronic music had made into mainstream “alternative” culture was in evidence: the existence of a mosh pit at the show—a sure sign, Strauss pointed out, that “people who are unlikely either to understand or respect a band” were now paying fans.
Exit Planet Dust, Astralwerks/Caroline, 1995.
Loops of Fury (EP), Astralwerks/Caroline, 1996.
Dig Your Own Hole, Astralwerks/Caroline, 1997.
Also released the single “Songs to the Siren” and two EPs in England as the Dust Brothers.
Billboard, February 15, 1997, p. 30.
Entertainment Weekly, March 14, 1997.
New York Times, May 21, 1997, p. B7.
Rolling Stone, August 20, 1996, p. 36; December 12, 1996, p. 25; March 20, 1997, p. 20; April 3, 1997, p. 63.
Spin, June 1997, p. 62.
Village Voice, October 21, 1995, p. 62.